NOTE: Due to the closure of Drollerie Press, this book is no longer available. I have the returned rights to my story, so please check back to see what I do with it in the future.
June 2008, Drollerie Press
young adult dark fantasy romance
On Fern’s 18th birthday, she discovers she’s a fire-starter. It’s a gift, and she’s glad to have it. But fire starting is a curse as well as a blessing. Fern must learn how to control it, and to do that she has to leave her home and family, lest she burn them all by accident. Fern travels to a place where other young people have gathered to learn how to manage their gifts. Though none are firestarters, they understand self-control, and there are books to help. And that’s where she meets Nik, the enigmatic magician who seems to understand her and her gift better than she does herself.
From the moment they meet, sparks fly, sometimes literally. Nik makes her lose her temper faster than anyone else can, but he understands her better than anyone else, too. Fern realizes something she didn’t look for and didn’t expect; she’s falling in love with him.
But can Nik be trusted? Or is he hiding dangerous secrets of his own?
Every evening, when the mist began to rise, mothers came out to call their children home. When it started, years ago, sometimes a child had lingered, unwilling to abandon a game—“Just let me finish this!”—and a ripple of panic had spread from woman to woman. The mother nearest the child yanked it up by its arm, sent it scooting homeward. “You do as your mother says!” And to her own children, “Don’t you ever make me wait when I’ve called you in, do you understand?”
Standing by the hencoop near the trees, calling the hens to come for their evening grain, Fern felt her skin begin to prickle. It was only dusk, not properly night yet, but under the trees darkness had begun already to gather. Not enough, not yet, but she still found herself looking round, checking, watching in case something started to move.
Every summer day of her childhood she had played out until lamp-lighting time. Not in the forest, of course, but in the village and around the lake, in and out of her friends’ houses until the first stars showed. Even then, if she had been around the far side of the lake and was late getting home, her mother might have been irritated, but never frightened.
But that had been before the Shadows came.
Thank goodness. The last hen had come up inside the coop, pecking greedily at the grain. She latched the door and pulled the bolts across, then lit the lantern and hung it on its hook so that its light fell over and around the coop. She picked up the grain pail and walked to the big farmhouse where the windows already glowed, splashing light out onto the path. She wouldn’t let herself run—that was the way to allow the panic in—but her steps quickened until she reached the door.
The kitchen was full of light and people. Fern stepped inside, the hairs on the back of her neck smoothing back down. Light everywhere, every gas mantle turned up high. The doors of the big oak linen press by the wall stood open: the only shadows that could lurk in there were the ones in corners and folds of fabric, too small for danger. Even the coalscuttle, which was scarcely half Fern’s height, had been pulled away from the wall so that it stood a handspan away from the growing dark outside.
Siege preparations, and none too many.
Fern’s older sister, Jewel, thin and grey-eyed, looked up from the stove, spoon in hand and hair—dark brown, like Fern’s—falling in squiggles around her face.
“Fern, would you just check on the children? They’re upstairs, but I’ve not heard a noise for ten minutes.”
Fern stepped out of her clogs and kicked them into place by the door. Jewel couldn’t help it—these last seven years every parent had learned to live their lives on edge—but this constant checking, even in broad daylight or when the children were safe indoors…
“I know,” said Jewel, her gaze on Fern’s face. “Please, just humour me, all right? When you have children, believe me, you’ll understand.”
Upstairs, Fern’s two nieces and nephew were sitting on the floor in her brother Tam’s brightly lit bedroom, playing with marbles. They didn’t even look up to see her as she stood in the doorway.
“Supper soon,” she said. They continued to ignore her, so she stuck out her tongue at the backs of their oblivious heads, turned to go—and froze.
A few years ago, Tam had turned an alcove in the wall into a wardrobe, with a clothes rail and a pair of doors. Usually, once it got dark, the doors were latched back, left standing open. But right now, they were shut.
“Get away from the wardrobe!”
All three of them jumped. Marbles went rolling everywhere as they ran to her, thudding into her outstretched arms. Carli began to sob.
“Move. Move. Out into the hall. Don’t cry, Carli, you’re safe now.”
The room was full of light, a barrier and a safeguard. Even if something had got into the wardrobe, through the wall from the dark outside, it was all right, it couldn’t hurt them—the light blocked it from getting any farther.
Fern checked that her own shadow fell away from the wardrobe, leaned forward and jerked the door open.
The light raced in. Thin folds of shadow hid between clothes, patches of it lay under shoes and hats. But nothing else.
Fern sank onto Tam’s bed, only now aware of how hard her heart was pounding.
Tam stood in the doorway. Beside him, his wife, Sofia, knelt, the children clinging to her.
“It’s all right,” said Fern. “They’d pushed the wardrobe door shut, that’s all.”
Sofia went white. “That’s all? How often have we told you? At night the doors stay open.” She stood up, heaving Carli onto her hip, and strode across the room to smack a hand against the wall by the wardrobe. “Look. Look. It’s dark outside. The Shadows can move from darkness to darkness. If you leave a patch of darkness in here then the Shadows can get inside the house.”
The children stared up at her, speechless. Tyr’s lip quivered, but eight-year-old Meg’s face had set, like someone who’s been hit when she didn’t expect it.
“Sofia,” said Tam.
“They have to know. They have to remember. It only takes one time and that’s it, that’s it.” She stopped, shaking.
Tam picked Tyr up, put an arm around Meg’s stiff little shoulders. “She is right, children. But you’ll remember now, won’t you?”
Meg choked suddenly and began to sob, her shoulders shaking, her face hidden against Tam’s shirt. Tam looked across Tyr’s head at his wife. “Let’s get them downstairs, all right?”
Sofia’s arms tightened around Carli. “They have to be told, Tam.”
“I know. I’m not disagreeing with you. But let’s take them downstairs now.”
* * * *
By dinnertime, Tyr and Carli were playing again, downstairs in the kitchen in the bright safe light. But Meg still hovered around her mother’s skirts. The look on her face struck at Fern. She was too young for this, too young to have to remember all the time that any patch of shadow could hold danger. But the alternative—to not enforce the rules, to risk the danger—no, they couldn’t even consider it.
Just before dinner Jewel beckoned Meg into a corner, whispering to her as she took her apron off. Fern saw Meg reply, nod her head, and then a small, slow smile appear on her face. She’d be all right, bless her. And Sofia was right: the children did have to remember what was safe and what wasn’t.
Without saying anything, Tam opened a rare bottle of wine, and the mood at the table, a little tense to start with, slowly eased into relaxation. When they’d finished eating Fern stood up, about to start collecting plates, but Jewel stopped her with a hand on her arm.
“Fern, wait a minute.”
The children were marching round the table to Fern’s place carrying a covered tray between them.
Sofia reached over their shoulders and whisked the cloth off the tray. “Happy Birthday, Fern!”
A perfectly iced cake, smooth and white as snow, decorated with eighteen candles.
Tears came to Fern’s eyes. Unbelievably, she’d forgotten. These last few years had been so full of chores, of fear and grief.
“I can’t believe you managed to remember. I’d forgotten it completely—”
“Jewel remembered,” said Tam. “Here, let me light the candles.”
He did so, against a clamour of “How many candles is that? How many, Daddy? How old are you, Aunt Fern?”
The light of the room almost drowned out the soft fuzz of the candle flames, but all the same their heat touched Fern’s face as she bent towards them. She drew in her breath, and then blew, intent on extinguishing all the candles at once.
Heat blazed into her eyes. The flames shot up with a crack of expanding air. The smell of smoke filled her nose. A wall of fire rose in front of her, blocking out the room, impossibly hot—
It died, shrinking and disappearing as if it had been nothing but a mirage, leaving her sitting frozen, hands gripping the tablecloth, still leaning forward as if poised to blow.
A scorch mark blackened the tablecloth, right across, side to side. There was a horrible smell of burnt linen. But the cake was as perfect as before, and on top of it all eighteen of the candles still burned.
“What was that?” said Tam.
“No one’s burned?” said Jewel, her voice unsteady. The children shook their heads, still staring at the cake.
Fern drew in a careful breath, and found herself shaking. “It was this far from me,” she said. “It should have burned me—”
It was Sofia who said, finally, what everyone was thinking. “Not if you’re a fire-starter. Fire-starters don’t burn themselves.”
The words hung in the room with the slowly clearing smoke.
“Here,” said Jewel, “let me take the cloth away. That smell…”
The flames had reached through the cloth and onto the table, leaving an ugly black scar across the varnished wood.
Fern stared at it, her hands tight in her lap, her lips bitten together. She was afraid to move, afraid to breathe in case she did it again.
Jewel came back to the table and put her hand on Fern’s shoulder.
“It’s all right,” she said. “We can sand it down. And everyone knows the gifts start out uncontrollable—”
Tam looked up at her. “Wait,” he said. “The gifts? They begin at puberty. Fern is eighteen.”
Jewel shrugged a shoulder. “I know. But she was twelve when Mother died. She stopped growing for a year then, remember? And you didn’t know, but…other signs of womanhood, they were delayed too.”
“I am here,” said Fern, flushing, forgetting for a moment to be scared.
“I am married now,” said Tam, mocking her slightly. “Women are no longer a complete mystery to me.”
“Or so he likes to think,” murmured Sofia, and laughter ran around the table, followed by a clamour from Meg: “What’s funny? Why are you laughing?”
Sofia hushed her before turning back to Tam. “And anyway,” she said, “What else can it be?”
“There are plenty of other gifts—”
“Yes, but don’t they all start at puberty? The Sight, controlling the lightning, shape-shifting?”
“All right,” he said. “I’ll accept it. The real question, though, is what do we do now?”